[Israeli spy ?] Elizabeth Tsurkov’s Iraq travel was not authorized, Princeton confirms

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  August 29, 2023

Princeton University has confirmed that it made no exception for Elizabeth Tsurkov to its strict ban on students traveling to Iraq to conduct research.

This corroborates the reporting of The Electronic Intifada that Tsurkov, an Israeli military intelligence veteran, could not have been in Iraq for that purpose – as the Israeli government and her supporters have claimed – when she disappeared in March.

When news of Tsurkov’s disappearance became widely known in early July, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that the dual Israeli-Russian national had been missing in Iraq for several months and claimed that she was being held by an Iraqi Shia militia.

“She is an academic who visited Iraq on her Russian passport, at her own initiative pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US,” Netanyahu’s office asserted.

In an op-ed in the outlet NJ.com last week, Tsurkov’s sister Emma Tsurkov repeated this assertion and accused Princeton of not doing enough to try to secure Elizabeth’s release.

“While my sister may not be a US citizen or a green card holder, she is a doctoral student at Princeton and a resident of the state of New Jersey,” Emma Tsurkov wrote. “So when I learned that Princeton was trying to distance itself from any responsibility for Elizabeth’s situation – denying my requests for them to issue a public statement from the university affirming she is a graduate student and was doing research for her dissertation in Baghdad – I could not understand why.”

“Not only does Princeton serve as my sister’s academic home and community, but the university approved and funded her research,” Emma Tsurkov claimed.

This claim is being boosted by others who, like Elizabeth Tsurkov, have been vocal promoters of the US-backed proxy war to overthrow the Syrian government, such as British think-tanker Charles Lister.

Emma Tsurkov states that she “heard from US government officials that Princeton officials were leading them to believe that my sister was operating on her own.”

Emma Tsurkov also turned her fire on Amaney Jamal, the Palestinian American professor who serves as Tsurkov’s doctoral adviser. Emma claims her sister Elizabeth told her that Jamal had approved of her plan to conduct research in Iraq.

“Indeed, we had long conversations about how happy Elizabeth was to be working with Dr. Jamal – she was particularly grateful that Dr. Jamal took a personal interest in the fieldwork that she was developing in Iraq,” Emma Tsurkov asserted.

But even if that were true, Jamal – who has previously not responded to The Electronic Intifada’s requests for comment – would have had no authority to override the university’s strict ban on travel to Iraq.

Iraq is one of about two dozen “Category X” countries that the university deems far too dangerous for student or faculty travel.

‘No exceptions’

In response to Emma Tsurkov’s accusations, Princeton has finally confirmed that Elizabeth Tsurkov was not in Iraq to carry out dissertation research as part of her university-approved studies.

Princeton University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told the campus newspaper The Daily Princetonian that “university travel to Iraq is not permitted for students (graduate or undergraduate), and there are no exceptions.”

During her visits to Iraq, Tsurkov concealed her Israeli identity and presented herself falsely as a Russian researcher who sympathized with the Shia political movement headed by Muqtada al-Sadr. She sought interviews with its activists and leaders.

In fact, Tsurkov has long taken a hostile anti-Shia view of regional politics and has vocally supported US military intervention in the region, particularly against Syria.

Russians arrested for spying in Lebanon

It has also emerged that Tsurkov spent several months in Lebanon, which she entered on a Russian passport using the name Elizaveta Tsurkova.

“Lebanese security officials are investigating the identities of those in Lebanon Tsurkov communicated with, and who may have facilitated her visit,” the publication The Cradle reported last month, citing unnamed official sources in Lebanon.

Lebanon remains at war with Israel and strictly prohibits not only the entry of Israelis but of anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport.

Given the grave threat Israel continues to pose to Lebanon, the country’s security officials are extremely vigilant about potential spies.

This was underscored in recent days by Lebanon’s arrest of a couple with Russian citizenship whom authorities are accusing of spying for Israel.

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar has claimed that the couple, who have not been named, admitted to their activities.

According to the newspaper, the pair were instructed to spy on sites related to Hizballah, the powerful Lebanese resistance group that has repeatedly humiliated Israel’s army on the battlefield.


While it remains unclear why Tsurkov really traveled to Iraq and Lebanon, there is no doubt that she placed herself and her local contacts in grave danger: It is illegal for Iraqis to have any contact with Israel, a crime that can be punishable by death.

Tsurkov has also previously acknowledged that for Israelis to meet people in certain countries in the region without disclosing that they are Israeli is at the very least unethical.

The regular scenes of unelected Arab leaders cavorting with Israel’s rulers have led to complacency in many quarters that attitudes towards the colonial apartheid state have softened among people in the region.

But that is not the case, as this week’s debacle in Libya demonstrated. After Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen revealed that he had met with his Libyan counterpart Najla al-Mangoush in Rome last week, angry protests broke out in Tripoli and other Libyan cities.

Al-Mangoush fled Libya to Turkey and was then fired amid calls for the whole Libyan government to resign.

The US was reportedly furious at Israel for revealing the meeting.

As The New York Times noted, “for all the fanfare around US-brokered normalization deals between Israel and three Arab countries over the past few years, much of the Arab world remains deeply hostile to Israel and devoted to the Palestinian cause.”

Ali Abunimah is Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)